Archive for the ‘morality’ Category

Persons in Law

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

We cannot understand the self by examining people in isolation.   Too many important aspects of personhood only appear in a social context.

Thomas Metzinger’s work describes the self-model in which our ideas about ourselves are rooted.  The model is (usually) transparent, in that we operate through it without (usually) any awareness of a distinction between the model and the underlying reality.  It is a model to which we have a profound emotional attachment—most of us care, deeply, about ourselves in the past, present, and future.  As a result, our self-models are motivational.  They spur and shape our actions.  We evaluate possible courses of action by putting our self-models through various simulations, and responding emotionally to the different outcomes we imagine.  The research of Antonio Damasio has begun to show how our emotions must inform our executive decision-making processes in order for us to make what are commonly recognized as ‘rational’ decisions.

Most of what Metzinger and Damasio have to say about the self is as true of isolated individuals as of human beings immersed in society.  But a case can be made that the concept of the self could only have emerged in a social context.   I have argued that our concepts, particularly the entities recognized by our ontology, reflect what is important to us. The spatio-temporal boundaries between ‘things’ are artificial, not natural; they do not exist in nature, but are imposed upon nature by human beings.   A person is an entity whose boundaries roughly coincide with those of a human biological organism.  A person is commonly considered to begin sometime around birth; sooner in some traditions, later in others.  The person is usually thought to persist until biological death; but many people believe that it continues much longer than that; and some believe that if the organism is sufficiently damaged, then the person may cease to exist before its organism dies.

Among other things, a person is a unit of moral and legal responsibility—a bearer of enduring rights and privileges, duties and obligations, merits and demerits, assets and liabilities, debts and credits.  Those attributes of individual persons result from, and depend on, the fact that individuals are members of a larger society.  If a human being is isolated for a long time from other human beings, legal obligation disappears from his life, and moral obligation, if it does not entirely disappear, is vastly curtailed.  I would not go so far as to say that an isolated human being ceases to be a person; only that certain central and important aspects of personhood simply disappear from his or her life.  Having moral and legal rights and obligations is a central and important aspect of personhood. (more…)

Is the Google Car Conscious? Ethics and Artificial Minds

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

As a software developer, I am attracted by Thomas Metzinger’s functional level of description because it can be read as a high-level functional specification for consciousness and the self.  If someone could build an artificial system that meets the specification, he or she would have created a conscious being!   That would certainly be an interesting project.  Perhaps having a philosopher write the functional spec is exactly what’s called for to rescue AI from the back-eddies in which it has slowly revolved for several decades.

Although computers have made impressive progress in competing with human beings—advancing from checkers to chess championships, winning at trivia games and outperforming human experts in knowledge of specific domains—this success is due more to faster hardware, improved search techniques, and truly massive storage than to breakthrough advances in software architecture.  Yes, software can ‘learn,’ by using feedback from its own failures and successes to modify its behaviour when attempting similar problems in the future.  Yet the holy grail of AI, the Turing Test—to pass which a computer must be able to successfully masquerade as a human being by carrying on a convincing conversation with human interlocutors who are trying to tell the difference—still seems as distant a goal as it did when Alan Turing proposed it in 1950.  It is likely to remain so until we develop machine analogues of consciousness and emotion, by which I mean emotions both of self-concern and of concern for others. (more…)

Metzinger on the Unreality of the Self

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

In the last chapter of Being No One, Thomas Metzinger addresses the questions with which he introduced the book, a list that includes:

What is phenomenal selfhood?  What, precisely, is the nonconceptual sense of ownership going along with the phenomenal experience of selfhood, or of “being someone”?

In the discussion, he makes a striking comment related to the reality of the self.  If the phenomenal self-model (PSM) is “of a nonhallucinatory kind”:

…the system then represents certain aspects of reality as being parts of itself, and it does so correctly.   What it achieves is not only self-experience but self-knowledge. (Metzinger 2004, p 607)

In reading this passage, I wondered how Metzinger can reconcile it with his claim that ‘no such things as selves exist in the world.’   Here he says that the system represents itself to itself  by means of its PSM, and that it does so “correctly.”  Metzinger certainly admits that systems exist.  Are we not, then, such systems? (more…)

Engaging with the Future

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Our investments in the future do not stop paying dividends when we die.  Other beneficiaries may cash the cheques, but that does not represent a loss to ourselves, because our connections to them are not fundamentally different from our connections to ourselves during our remainder of our lifetimes.  In that way, it’s as though someone else always cashes the cheques.

In practice, this means we need not hold all our future eggs in one basket.  We have no reason to invest only in ourselves.  It is no less rational to work towards goals that benefit other people, or the non-human world, than it is to work for our own benefit.  They may be goals for places far outside our homes, and for times following our personal deaths.  We can commit ourselves to goals at future times when there will be no one alive for whom we now feel full-blown self-concern.  Like Terry Fox, we can engage with a future in which we will no longer exist. (more…)

Hazlitt’s Insight

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness, than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings. – William Hazlitt

As early as 1796, when he was just eighteen, the English essayist William Hazlitt may have become the first Westerner to see that self-concern is not rationally required.

Hazlitt published his insight in 1805, in his Essays on the Principles of Human Action.  Introducing the 1990 edition, John Price informs us that “The reading public and the reviewing journals regarded it, for the most part, with indifference or hostility.”   Hazlitt’s Essays and the idea they contain fell into obscurity for the best part of two centuries, after which the idea re-emerged independently as part of a new wave of thought about personal identity (more…)

Self-Concern as Motive

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

We are strongly motivated to promote the interests of anyone for whom we feel self-concern.  We are moved to prevent that person’s suffering, to work towards his or her well-being.  Motivation seems part of self-concern’s essential core.

A focus on motivation suggests that self-concern is primarily future-directed. We know we cannot change the past, and do not normally try.  But of course, our attitudes towards the past, as well as the future, are infected with self-concern.  Most events I remember in my own past are coloured by pride or shame, personal joy or pain.  Most of my memories of my own life have associated emotions which are qualitatively distinct from my memories of other people’s lives, and of events to which I had no personal connection.

Our mental models of reality include both past and future.  We imagine both (not always accurately).  But the imagined past is labelled, in our models, as fixed, beyond help.  The imagined future (and there are many) is flagged as possible.  The past is manifest, fixed, immutable.  The future is unmanifest, mutable, a realm of possibilities not actualities.  The ‘flow of time’ might be described as the production of the actual from the possible. (more…)

The Plastic Self

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Neurologists have demonstrated plasticity in the spatial sense of self, or body-image.  Not only are the ‘phantom limbs’ of amputees somewhat malleable, under special circumstances (and also remarkably intractable under others), but we can be induced to perceive a detached rubber hand, lying on a table, as our own hand, and even to feel that the table-top itself is part of our own body.  But how plastic, if at all, are our ideas of ourselves extended into the future and the past?

Published in 1970, Bernard Williams’ “The Self and the Future” is one of the seminal papers that gave rise to the contemporary philosophical debate on personal identity.   Williams presents two series of thought-experiments, which lead his own intuitions in opposite directions on the question whether a future person, described as having a certain relationship to his present self, would be himself or someone else.  One set of cases tends to persuade him that what matters in personal identity – the relation that makes us the same person over time – is psychological continuity.  The other set of cases makes him think that bodily continuity is more important.  Williams reports being left “not in the least clear” which is right.

Williams presents this as a philosophical problem.  I suggest it is more fruitfully regarded as an experimental result – a single data-point in a psychological experiment, with Williams as both subject and experimenter.  If repeated with a larger, and less contaminated, sample population, such an experiment could shed the light of empirical research on the question with which I opened this post.  I hope someone will undertake such a study, which could lead in interesting directions. (more…)

Life Insurance as Game Changer

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Who would have predicted that boring old life insurance would become the ‘killer app’ that makes human replication technology truly transformational?  But that does seem to follow from the logic of the situation.

The arguments for information-based life insurance are even more compelling than the arguments for teleportation.  The advantages of travelling as information are speed, convenience, cost, and sustainability (in the form of lower carbon emissions).  The final product is the same as conventional travel – the customer is (to all intents and purposes) transported from place A to place B.  But in the case of life insurance, the product is radically transformed.  Whereas traditional insurance merely mitigates the damage of death by providing monetary support to surviving family, the new insurance warrants the life of the policyholder by – in the event of his death – restoring him from a backup file.   It changes our relationship to death, which is no small matter. (more…)

What We Are

Friday, February 26th, 2010

What are we, if we are informational entities?

Like most people (and unlike some philosophers) I will stick to the view that we are persons.  In this post I will try to state clearly what persons are according to the theory of persons I recommend, which I call the Information Theory.  I will begin to flesh the theory out, by drawing out some of its consequences.

The Information Theory

Here are some claims of the Information Theory of Persons.

  1. Persons are entities that can be multiply instantiated, like tunes, dances, literary works, electronic files, computer programs, and genes.
  2. Like all those things, persons are entities that can be expressed as information.  A person can cross a spatio-temporal gap in the form of information carried by any convenient medium, such as electronic files.
  3. Persons are distinct from the living biological organisms they depend on, as software is distinct from the hardware it runs on. (more…)